Magazine Opinions Volume 70, Issue 4

Visualizing Real World Data: Bias and Twisting the Truth

By Cameron Pitzak

Both of the images below were made using the exact same data provided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local county websites. The map on the left shows COVID-19 cases per 100k and the map on the right shows total COVID-19 cases. Especially now that COVID-19 has been politicized, both versions of this map could be used to prove the points of both Republicans and Democrats, and both would be correct, but each one shows a very different story. This is an example of how you can show two different biases in real world data. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have created an environment where people listen and blindly follow the arguments of a single source. In this environment, all it takes is a single piece of evidence to justify one’s point, and people will listen.

Showing COVID-19 data by cases per 100 thousand does a better job at showing which counties are being hit the hardest by the virus because it does a better job at comparing smaller counties to larger ones by making the color shade based on the percentage of confirmed covid cases to the population, instead of just the total number. There are many counties like Lassen that seem to be almost completely unaffected by the virus on the COVID-19 total cases map, but are shown to be having devastating breakouts when looking at the percentage cases map. Any person on the internet or on the news with a decent following could use either map to prove their point.

There are a variety of different ways to not only show some bias in data, but to blatantly twist the truth on graphs and maps just like these. It’s possible for graphs to be flipped upside down or colors inverted to outright trick people into seeing the exact opposite of the truth. It might seem like these should be easy to spot, but when someone is just scrolling past it in their feed, they probably won’t spend more than a second examining the graphic. Graphics like these are very useful and commonly used in misinformation campaigns, so I always take these things with a grain of salt, and try to find another point of view to analyze the information.

Visualizing data in a graphic can be very useful to give us a better understanding of the information put before us, but it’s important to understand that real world data will always have some sort of bias depending on how the data is recorded or collected. I would like to see news stations, political influencers, and government agencies attempt to find multiple ways to visualize their information so people can have a better understanding of the information. Whether it be in an email from Las Lomas or on national television, it’s always important to take a close look at graphics.